Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Modern Crime

Tricks of the Trade by Euan B Pollock

TricksoftheTrade3Tricks of the Trade begins with an investigation, not to find a killer but to confirm a cause of a death.

Major Robertson died leaving behind a sizeable estate yet his will contained an unusual condition. On his death his estate would be split amongst his family unless he was found to have committed suicide in which case his estate would be given away to charity.

The Major was found dead in his bath following a family party, his wrists slit and with a note stating “I can’t live without him”. The room was locked from inside. And just months earlier the Major’s wife had also committed suicide.

With an inheritance on the line, the family have asked a legal firm to arrange for Sebastian Dakar to investigate whether the initial police verdict of suicide can be challenged. Trainee lawyer Stewart Scott has been assigned by the firm to accompany Dakar as he conducts his investigation.

Dakar is a practising Zen master of international reputation and seems to be an unlikely figure to serve as a sleuth. Initially he appears quite enigmatic, though very amiable, and while his respectful, thoughtful questioning style gave the investigation an interesting and unusual pace I found it a little hard to understand why he would be sought out and willing to serve in this capacity in an investigation.

As it happens there are answers forthcoming and I will say that I think the explanation did adequately account for both his technique and why he has become the person that he is at the point we encounter him. I did wish though that it had come a little earlier in the narrative as I felt a little distracted by the question up until that point. In spite of this I found Dakar to be a fundamentally likeable figure and I felt it was credible that he had the skills to dedue the solution to this case.

Stewart is our point of entry both to the case and also to Dakar. The novel is written in the third person, the narration tending to follow his perspective and echo his voice. While I would have preferred to have a little less of Stewart’s personality in the narration, this allows us to see Dakar from a distance and with a degree of cynicism about his methods which does work quite well to make the sleuth seem almost as mysterious as the case he is endeavoring to solve.

I found Stewart a harder to like than Dakar, though he is certainly a recognizable type. Stewart is introduced as grouchy, profane and having an unrequited attraction for one of his flatmates in the earliest chapters. He becomes livelier once the investigation gets underway however and I enjoyed the sequences where he begins to build his confidence and carries out a little questioning of his own. Though I could not get excited about the idea of a romance between Stewart and Beth, I did appreciate the way that thread of the story is resolved towards the end of the novel and that we see his experiences with Dakar have a positive effect on him.

The case itself is an intriguing one though I would caution those getting excited at the phrase Locked Room up above that the question of how this murder is accomplished is the least interesting thing about the case. Rather our primary focus will be on figuring out what in the evidence will prove that this is a murder rather than a suicide and determining who has a motive.

The idea of focusing an investigation on whether a crime has taken place at all is an interesting one though I think it has a clear problem that the author has to resolve. Namely that the outcome is implied by it forming the basis of a novel at all. After all, if this is suicide then the ending is bound to feel a little anticlimactic. Inferring that a murder has taken place is one thing, proving it is a much harder affair and I felt Dakar’s explanation for how he reached his conclusions were quite cunning and logically thought out.

The issue of motive however is the most interesting question of the book. If we assume that it is murder, why disguise it as a suicide when that means you will be disinherited? It’s a clever question and I was surprised when Dakar came to sum up his findings that I had overlooked quite a few subtle clues along the way that were there in plain sight.

In conclusion, though I struggled a little with the characterization of Stewart and the way his personality bled into the narration, I appreciated the carefully constructed plot and clues. When the explanations were given at the end I felt equally satisfied and frustrated with myself for not piecing the solution together – this is always a good feeling when you are done with a mystery!

I am not sure about is whether this book is intended to be a standalone or the first in a series featuring one or other (or perhaps both) characters. The ending certainly seems to be fairly neat for one of the pair and I would imagine that the mechanics of bringing the pair together again might prove difficult. Dakar is an interesting creation though and while I think it might be challenging to credibly use him as a recurring sleuth, his more laid back, congenial style and positive outlook is refreshing and different.

Should he return, I would be intrigued to see where Pollock takes him next.

 

I received an advance reader copy but purchased a copy of the book prior to review.

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French Crime, Locked Room International, Modern Crime

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter

MadmansAfter trying and enjoying my first Paul Halter novel, Death Invites You, last year I received some wonderful suggestions for which book I should pick next. I honestly did make note of all of those suggestions and I intended to utilize them. I really did. But then I actually came across a copy of The Madman’s Room and all those plans went out the window… Whoops!

Halter seems to represent something of a literary fault line among the bloggers I read regularly. That was the reason I was initially so hesitant to try him. His plots are constructed with a lot of elements that often seem to be pulling in opposite directions. This not only seems messy, it may lead some readers to wonder if he’s just throwing these crazy, imaginative ideas out there and forcing them into the shape of a novel.

The Madman’s Room is a much more complex narrative than Death Invites You, incorporating significantly more elements and questions for the reader to consider and yet I felt that these hung together exceptionally well to create a much richer, more rewarding story. It still can feel a little messy and unwieldy and at times I wondered just how these elements could be brought together but, when the explanation is given, everything seemed to align perfectly.

A very basic outline of the core points of the story is that the wealthy businessman Harris Thorne moves his wife’s family to live with him in his ancestral home. They learn the story of his great-Uncle Hector who appeared to be able to see the future, predicting the deaths of family members in a fire years after he himself had died. His room was sealed upon his death but Harris decides that he will reopen that room against his brother’s objections to turn it into his study. He dies soon afterwards with some aspects of the case seeming to mirror the circumstances in which Hector had died.

For another writer that alone may be enough material for a novel but Halter weaves a number of smaller mysteries around the bigger question of who killed Harris Thorne. Did Harris really did commit suicide or if he was murdered? What is the significance of a patch of water that appeared in front of the fire both when Hector and Harris died? What do people see in a doorway that terrifies them? Is everyone that we believe to be dead actually dead? Can Harris’ brother Brian really see the future? And just what are the short lecture about possible outcomes of an exhumation (a la Dr. Fell) and the brief romantic scene at the beginning of the novel there for?

It’s a lot to unpack and to do so would violate my intentions to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say is that I think Halter’s explanations of the ways these elements interconnect is really quite masterful and I respected the simplicity and common sense of many of those solutions. Solutions to some puzzles are easier to predict than others but I found all to be quite satisfying and appreciated the variations Halter gives us. Even the issue that Sergio felt stretched credulity struck me as a discrete nod to a similarly stretched moment in a very early Poirot novel.

While the artificiality of a moment like that can be a negative for some readers, I personally find it quite charming. Certainly I think there are very few people who would talk or act like characters in a Paul Halter novel but I think that’s okay as he is clearly playing with classic mystery fiction types and placing all other elements of the novel as secondary to his chief concern of developing the puzzle. His prose is never pretty, nor is it particularly atmospheric yet it conveys precisely the amount of information the author intends to very well and, like JJ, I find it to be very effective.

And though Halter’s characters here may read a little stiffly, I found them to be a much more interesting group than in Death Invites You. This is partly because Halter’s story plays out over a much longer period, allowing those characters time to change in reaction to the events they are experiencing. I found some of those changes in character to be very effective and I appreciated the psychological angles to the solution to this story.

On the subject of the conclusion however, I must take note of Brad’s criticism that the novel is undermined by its confusing and unnecessary final page twist. While I enjoyed the novel enormously, I would agree that this moment detracts from the otherwise clean, refined nature of the ending. Sadly this concludes an otherwise stellar work on a slightly cheap note.

In spite of that misstep, I think The Madman’s Room is a really striking and effective work. At the midpoint of the novel I had no idea how Halter was going to pull all of these elements together so I was really impressed by just how clean and tidy the explanations were. Unlike many seemingly inexplicable crime stories, the explanations given for how and why the strange events occur are very persuasive because of their simplicity while I felt that the supernatural elements in the story were used very effectively not only to build atmosphere but contribute to the key themes and ideas of the novel.

In short, I loved this and am looking forward to reading more Halter. And next time I promise I will actually utilize some of your suggestions!

Modern Crime

The Perfect Murder by Stewart Giles

ThePerfectMurderDetective Harriet Taylor, a relative newcomer to Cornwall, receives a call about two cats that were found mutilated outside their owners’ homes. Later that same day one of the two owners is discovered dead with words written on the back of her neck.

Harriet’s investigation is still in its early stages when another body shows up, also with words written on it. The methods used are completely different and yet these two totally dissimilar crimes are clearly linked, leading members of Harriet’s team to wonder if a serial killer may be on the loose in the town of Trotterdown…

When I started reading A Perfect Murder I was unaware that it was actually the second book in a series. This is something I normally take care to avoid and I was a significant way into the book before I realized that I was reading a sequel.

While I felt that I missed out on some important character details by skipping over the first book in this series, I did think that Harriet was an appealing lead and for the most part I enjoyed her interactions with some of her colleagues.

In the course of this novel Giles presents us with several killings, each of which is presented as a perfect murder. Initially these murders seem quite dissimilar as entirely different methods are used for each and the words written on the victims’ bodies change with each killing.

Of the killings we witness, the first is easily the most interesting and also the most disturbing as it involves both a brutal act perpetrated on an animal and also a memorable method of dispatch for the poor pet owner. Unfortunately the crimes that follow receive decreasing levels of space and attention to make their impact on the reader. For the early part of the novel I was intrigued and curious as to how these events all fitted together.

At this point I would issue the warning that the book’s blurb gives away far too much about the story and risks spoiling the answer to that very important question. Even if you skip over reading the blurb though it is far too easy to begin to work out what is going on, especially as Giles presents us with a limited pool of significant suspects to consider. This is a shame because some of the ideas here are quite clever, particularly the explanation of how some aspects of the second murder were achieved.

The revelation of the identity of the killer felt similarly disappointing and while I had predicted that identity, I did feel that the character’s motivation was unconvincing. This is particularly the case given the scale of the crimes they have committed by the point of the novel where that reveal takes place.

One other aspect of this book that I found particularly disappointing was the realization of the setting. I was born and raised in Cornwall yet found little familiar here beyond some elements of the Cornish landscape. Given how unusual Cornish names and speech patterns can be, I was struck by how English almost all of the characters felt. It is a small thing and it will probably not bother many readers and yet I found it utterly distracting and it became a barrier for me to believing in the story’s setting.

Overall, I think that there were some aspects of this story that were appealing and that grabbed my interest. The murders are varied and I felt that the idea behind the mystery was clever, even if the novel spoils it in the blurb. Unfortunately once you figure out that aspect of the story it is far too easy to arrive at the murderer’s identity as the novel never takes the time to identify and develop credible alternative suspects making the last third feel a little anticlimactic.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.

Modern Crime, Thriller

Say Nothing by Brad Parks

say-nothingThere are many ways that becoming a parent three years ago changed my life but the one I could never have predicted is that I, being the sort of man who regularly gets described as stony and unemotional, would get verklempt at the mere sight of an old pair of baby shoes or stay up half the night with worry when the kid has a particularly bad case of the sniffles. It’s a cliche but like most good cliches it comes from a truthful place; the moment you become responsible for another person’s life that changes you.

Say Nothing absolutely preys on that parental emotional with a premise that would strike fear into any father or mother’s heart. Federal Judge Scott Sampson receives a text message from his wife telling him that he doesn’t need to pick the children up from school and is astonished later that evening when his wife arrives home without the children. Moments later the kidnappers get in touch, making it clear that in exchange for their children’s safety Sampson will need to act according to their instructions in his rulings on a case but if they tell anyone there will be severe consequences.

Parks focuses on the psychological impact that the kidnapping has on the parents and explores the way it affects their relationships with each other and their family and colleagues. Knowing that they cannot contact the FBI, Scott and Alison try to figure out who might be responsible but paranoia drives some of their actions and accusations and their seemingly perfect marriage threatens to crumble around them.

The decision to have most of the story told from Scott’s perspective is a solid one and it certainly allows the reader to feel that sense of paranoia build within him and to share in the choices he makes. The remaining chapters are told from the perspective of the kidnappers which I feel was a less successful choice as this gives away a lot of what is going on and at times only serves to remove some of the mystery about what is going on.

To Parks’ credit, he does sustain the premise and builds a sense of tension throughout his novel which is quite long for a thriller at close to 440 pages long. The chapters are relatively short, helping add to the suspense and keep the pages turning.

I appreciated the way Parks builds up the characters of Scott and Alison and introduces elements of their backstory as a family. I had a strong sense of empathy for both characters at points in the novel and when I was frustrated by them I could at least understand what led them to act the way they did.

Unfortunately I was less convinced by the depiction of the two children who seem unnaturally mature in the way they speak at points in the novel. As they play a relatively small role in the story I was able to overlook this and while it may not have been realistic, I do think that the choice did contribute to the clarity of the story.

As you might expect from a thriller there are several significant twists and revelations that help to keep things moving though there are remarkably few action sequences. Instead Parks builds a sense of mystery as Scott and Alison try to figure out just who may be responsible and what their ultimate aim is. While I am not sure if the fair play thriller is really a thing, I can say that the book gives the reader all you need to deduce this information and I felt that the conclusion was strong, if not spectacular.

While I am not sure that I would have felt quite so emotionally engaged in the story prior to becoming a father, I must admit that this story hit those parental trigger points very effectively and kept me turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised by the development of the mystery which felt well-clued and engaged to the end. It worked for me and I will certainly consider trying some of Parks’ other work in the future.

Book of the Month, Historical Mysteries, Modern Crime

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

BirdwatcherPolice Sergeant William South lives in a remote part of the Kentish coast and has spent his professional career avoiding getting involved in anything approaching a murder investigation. When his friend and neighbor, a fellow birdwatcher, is found dead however he is not only roped into the efforts, the department ends up using his home as a base of operations.

Soon South realizes that he may not have known his friend quite as well as he had thought and he finds his own past, which he has kept secret, may be connected to the case.

The author, William Shaw, had previously penned one of my favorite crime novels of a few years ago – She’s Leaving Home. One of the things I liked most about that title was the way it managed to evoke a sense of time and place through character attitudes, dialogue and elements of the locations. The Birdwatcher is similarly impressive, conveying a strong sense of what it would be like to grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in addition to being a brilliant piece of character study and a really gripping murder investigation.

Shaw has structured his book quite magnificently both thematically and in the development of its plot. Each chapter has two strands – a part told in the present day and a part which takes place during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. This allows Shaw to slowly reveal the events which have made South the man he is at the start of the story and allows us to draw some connections between events in the past and present.

This is a really smart approach and it means that we have several mysteries we can delve into. The most traditional of these is the question of who is responsible for the death of his friend and it is an interesting case in its own right. There are plenty of contradictions in his friend’s life that have to be sorted through and I enjoyed learning how the evidence we are given is stitched together later in the novel to explain what happened.

The second level of mystery is the question of precisely what William did in his past. Here things are arguably more straightforward as we are told pretty directly at the end of the first chapter the secret he is hiding. Still, we may question how that point was reached and I feel we learn a lot about how the adult South was formed in these passages.

The third mystery relates to the adult South’s interpersonal relationship with a character he encounters early in the novel, DS Alexandra Cupidi. She is a new arrival from the city and comes with her own emotional and professional baggage.

At this point I should mention that while The Birdwatcher is intended to be a standalone novel, Shaw is penning a new series in which she will be the main character. While she is a hugely important part of this book, this is not her story. At key junctions in the narrative we always follow South’s story and he remains in the dark about what Cupidi is thinking. She is a striking creation in her own right and I am really looking forward to getting to read Salt Lane next year.

There are of course plenty of other little mysteries scattered throughout the text but the reason I highlight these three main ones is that I appreciate that Shaw really integrates his characters into his narrative. We can enjoy the novel as a straightforward detective procedural but each new development either reveals something about our main characters, causes shifts in their relationships or enhances the broader themes of the work.

The result is one of my favorite books in years from a writer who has fast become a favorite author. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next but, in the meantime, The Birdwatcher is highly recommended.

Update: I selected The Birdwatcher as my Book of the Month for October 2017.